Thursday, November 18, 2010

Well Enough Alone

I just won't leave it.

For one thing, I need to provide some entertainment for Randy at the feed mill.

For another, I'm cheap.

But mainly, I don't trust conventional wisdom when the "wisdom" comes from a multinational agricorp and the "conventional" is the convention of the compliant customer.

We're talking about a woman who personally salvages whole cow tripes -- innards so vile that the slaughterhouse workers refuse to touch them -- for her dogs. Because they are that good for them.

When I got my first chickens I bought commercial chicken feed at Tractor Supply or Agway, in fifty pound sacks. The food is in pellet or crumbled pellet form, its constituent ingredients unrecognizable. It is "complete and balanced."

You can guess how long that lasted.

When we bought our first flock of meat chickens, our friends Rachel and Stan encouraged me to have feed made up at Zanella's.

Nineteenth-century technology, still going strong at Zanella's and mixing my chicken feed; photographed with a five-year-old cell phone camera that is already obsolete.

This is the sort of thing I do on principle -- buying from a local small business that sources most of its supplies from local small farmers. It was also significantly cheaper. Our local, local mill, Knauf's in Harmony, a few miles away, has been shuttered and for sale since before we moved here. I remember buying a few dog supplies and garden things there years back, when we lived in the sprawlburb to the south. They were phoning it in then. I wish someone would buy the mill and do something with it. John Zanella says the mill equipment is probably not salvageable; I still think the building would make a keen brewpub. It's a great location, but parking would be an issue.

Randy, the animal-feed guy at Zanella's, ground up the standard corn/soy mash for broiler chickens, and I drove off with a half-ton on the trailer. Did the same this year, and while I was kvetching about the high cost of layer pellets, Randy pointed out that the broiler mash could also feed the hens, as long as they were getting oyster shell.

Derrrr ....

But later this summer I started reading and talking to people and thinking (always a mistake), and then buying sacks of whole grains and experimenting.

How locally can a chicken eat?

What are the optimum protein, calcium, fat contents?

Are the whole grains better for the birds than pulverized?

How can I keep egg quality and hen health up during the winter, when pasture is snow-covered or just dead?

I goosed out a recipe that we'll try:

cracked roasted soybeans
rolled corn
(All the above grains are local)
sunflower seeds
soybean oil
dicalcium phosphate
brewer's yeast
mineral pre-mix

ad lib (in separate hoppers):
kelp meal
oyster shell

add in winter:
alfalfa meal (as rabbit pellets)

Soybeans and corn need to be cracked for the chickens; the other grains are served whole
Pasture all year when it isn't encased in snow, but the food value of the pasture starts dropping off to negligible levels around now (the psychological value is indisputable -- just ask the chooks who were snowed in for much of last winter).

Scraps from wherever I can get them -- our kitchen, friends. I'm going to try to work with some local restaurants on recycling scraps this winter. I hate waste even more than I'm cheap. Chickens eat anything. The commercial diet is deficient in animal protein and fresh green stuff, and they can't make that up on pasture in the winter. I'm interested to see how much difference the rabbit pellets might make.

At the moment, store brand layer pellets (think chicken kibble) are $12.89 per 50# bag at Tractor Supply, my closest feed store. 25.8 cents per pound, or $516 a ton. Purina Layena is $13.99 a bag, or $559.60 a ton.

I paid $275 for this latest batch of feed, which came to about 1150 pounds. $20 for rolling and mixing, $255 for ingredients, including the kelp which will also be fed to goats, cats, and dogs. (But not rabbits. It is "not recommended for rabbits." I do not know why this is.) 23.9 cents per pound.

Not the huge savings I got with the off-the shelf formula broiler feed, but the quality is just not comparable to the industrial hen kibble. This is primo chicken feed. My hens, and everyone who eats their eggs, deserve no less.

Since I was planning to add ad lib kelp to the chooks' diet regardless, and I'm not yet sure how much of it will be fed to chickens and how much to my other critters, it's reasonable t0 subtract that $35 and 50#, making the figure 21.8 cents per pound or $436 a ton. Eighty bucks saved looks a lot better than four cents a pound saved. Plus I expect to save a lot by not schlepping into TSC -- or for that matter, Zanella's associated hardware and farm supply store -- and picking up odds & ends that I could probably do without. I make feed runs every week or so when I'm buying bagged, and that adds up just for the gas.

I reuse my woven feed bags from Zanella's, bringing them back to Randy when he rolls and mixes my next batch. Or I forget them and get my chops busted until I threaten to tell blog readers worldwide which key ingredient he forgot to mix in to the last batch of feed. Most bagged feed is in paper bags, which are useful for trash, but one can only use so many. Tractor Supply and Purina are now using some pretty nifty-looking woven poly bags that can be re-used for other things. I've used some of them as shelf backing in the barn, and am experimenting with remaking others into reusable shopping bags for sale. But again, one can use only so many of these.

So far, so good. The poultry have been eating the custom mix for about a month. Egg production is up somewhat (it normally drops off in the fall, and some birds are still moulting) and shells seem stronger.


  1. What's your protein percentage on that? I've been reading that pushing layer feed up to 18 or even 20 percent can dramatically improve egg production and feather growth in the winter, so most of the people I know who are custom-milling are adding fish meal or peas.

    I am envious of your good mill relationship - I've been able to find better brands than TSC or Purina (we use Poulin, top-dressed with Calf Manna, right now) but unless I want to drive to Vermont my custom-milling recipe is just a dream :).

  2. The "not recommended for rabbits" label makes me instantly suspect that it's perfectly fine for rabbits and perhaps even super. But that's just my experience with dog do/don't feed lists.

  3. Have you ever given your hens a little hot pepper flakes? My mother did that when the hens were off a in the winter. Seemed to get them to lay but I'm not sure if it's recommended for a long term thing.

  4. How are you storing all this feed to keep the rats from getting it? Or are the cats and dogs so amazing that this isn't a problem? ;-)


  5. Shirley --

    I checked with Thorvin, who sell the kelp. They say that rabbits and rodents metabolize iodine and vitamin A much more efficiently than other animals, and there is too much in the kelp. It causes thyroid problems for them. Mary the rabbit lady found some research indicating the same.

    If they guys who are actually selling the stuff say not to feed it in certain circumstances, I think that's pretty trustworthy. Eli at Thorvin did say that some growers do feed it to rabbits, but at very, very low concentrations.

    Elaine --

    I've heard of the hot pepper thing, but never tried it.

    Dorene --

    Years ago I scored some 55-gallon screw top plastic barrels that had been used to ship pickled peppers from Greece for a very good price. These are the BALLS for feed storage. Seal up tight, no sweating.

    Here are the soldiers all lined up, but with their lids off:

    The cats do a good job inside the barn, but I do seem to have one large burrower that they can't catch. It comes out from under the concrete slab at the edges.

  6. Back in the olden days (1940's) I fed a lot of hens early in the morning before school - hot mash with cayenne pepper added for additional heat. Cannot remember if the egg production was raised but the hens looked forward to it.


  7. "Years ago I scored some 55-gallon screw top plastic barrels that had been used to ship pickled peppers from Greece"

    Did Peter Piper pick them?

    Only you could work actual pickled peppers into a conversation. Many years ago, I shared my life with an HYPP positive horse and had an opportunity to explore alternatives to pre-mixed feed. Yes, it can be done better and cheaper than what is made readily available to the masses.

  8. Love, love, LOVE those barrels! If I ever get my land, I am so looking for barrels like those!


  9. Where did you get those barrels again? Those look great!


  10. Kathy, I got the barrels at Trader Horn, but have not seen them there since.

    However, I periodically see them advertised on Craig's List, regularly for sale at a flea market out near Greensburg.

    Search Craig's List Pittsburgh Farm & Garden section -- barrel or 55 gallon should bring them up. At some point I'll hook up my trailer and schlepp out there and get more of them.

    Eleanor, I believe those peppers were picked by Petros Auletes.

  11. Have you ever read Harvey Ussery's(sp?) writings? He regularly writes for Backyard Poultry among other mags and has a whole series of articles on feeding home made/non-commercial food at his website-

  12. This site seems to have the terra cotta food grade drums available.


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